This should not come as a shock to anyone reading this, nor did it stun Boise State football coach Bryan Harsin. The Broncos are expected to be good. Really good.
When your program has five losing seasons in the last 70 years, you’re coming off an 11-win campaign and return most of your starters, that follows. On Thursday, the Broncos were ranked No. 22 in the USA Today preseason coaches’ poll.
As Boise State opens fall camp Friday, the expectations are par for the course.
“Every year, we have to address the same situation — ‘How do we stay focused?’” Harsin said. “... It’s always been that way.
“I think it’s great recognition for our program, for our players. But now let’s go out and do the work.”
Focus should not be a major issue, considering the amount of experience returning (six starters on offense, nine on defense, all kicking specialists). But, as usual, there are some questions to be addressed, and some players ready to step into bigger roles.
It wasn’t pretty at times for the Broncos last season, whether it was quarterback Brett Rypien’s early struggles, six games with 112 yards or fewer on the ground, or allowing 13 sacks the first month.
“We still have a lot of work to do on the offensive side, and I don’t want us to think that a (Mountain West) championship takes away the fact that we’re trying to be better in all these areas,” Harsin said.
Rypien said if he wants to reach his goal of a New Year’s Six Bowl, he has to hit the ground running. Losing top receiver Cedrick Wilson and top tight end Jake Roh will make that a little more difficult. But coaches have praised Rypien’s ability to be the sort of senior that can rally the 10 guys around him, capable of making those potential new targets better.
“I think we want to see him create more energy for the offense, get guys energized, have it where if things aren’t going right, him to have more enthusiasm,” offensive coordinator Zak Hill said.
Aiding Rypien and company will be an offensive line that returns four who started at least seven games last season and improved as the year went on. It should also allow the Broncos to avoid some of those subpar rushing performances — their rushing yards per game (143.5) was the worst in the previous 20 seasons.
“Does it overly concern me? I’d be lying to you if I said no, because you’d like to see that number higher. But at the same time, I’m going to go back to if we did our job, yes or no. Did we get the yards we needed to get, yes or no,” running backs coach Lee Marks said.
The Broncos bring in four new scholarship receivers in fall camp, plus two new tight ends. Senior receivers Sean Modster and A.J. Richardson combined for 65 receptions last season, but the tight end group that returns had four. Harsin mentioned that position as perhaps his biggest question mark.
“We’ve gotta not only be as good, we’ve got to try and be better,” tight ends coach Kent Riddle said. “And I think we’ve got a good mixture of experience and youth and definitely a ton of potential.”
There are plenty of good reasons why the Broncos’ defense is considered one of the nation’s best entering the season. The nine returning starters accounted for 12 of the team’s 15 interceptions and 30 of its 34 sacks in 2017.
But one of those starters not back is in NFL first-round draft pick Leighton Vander Esch. His impact was felt all over the field, and a key for the Broncos is adjusting for that.
“With the experience we have back, we should be able to understand how to adapt,” defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said. “We have chemistry, but what is our personality going to be? ... It doesn’t have to be one guy, but he was a strong figure. That’s what camp’s for. We’ll figure that stuff out.”
It’s all a good problem to have, as the Broncos can trot out a bunch of different looks, employing multiple safeties or using its pass-rushing STUD ends at the same time. Sophomore Curtis Weaver (11 sacks) and senior Jabril Frazier (six) wreaked havoc, enabled by sturdy interior linemen in David Moa and Sonatane Lui.
Using the STUDs, which includes junior Sam Whitney, at the same time has been called the “Cheetah” package, and just how often it is utilized will remain to be seen.
“You can only have 11 guys on the field, but we’ve talked about it a lot,” STUD ends coach Spencer Danielson said. “I think there are some interesting options we can use, depending on the situation.”
Danielson, cornerbacks coach Jeff Popovich and defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a are new additions to the full-time staff, so getting them on the same page will be important. The Broncos return both starters at corner and safety, which may be the deepest spot on the roster.
Areas of improvement to keep in mind will be red zone defense (the Broncos were 98th nationally as foes scored 87.5 percent of the time they got inside the 20), and continuing to be productive taking the ball away (26 in 2017 after having just nine in 2016).
Boise State took a big leap forward last season on special teams, winning the field position battle and getting some big-time returns. Returner extraordinaire Avery Williams, kicker Haden Hoggarth, kickoff specialist Joel Velazquez and punter Quinn Skillin are all back. The Broncos were in the top 50 nationally in net punting, kickoff returns, punt returns, punt return defense and field-goal percentage.
Long snapper Brock Barr departs, but Boise State should continue to be strong in the kicking game.
“A ton of experience in that group,” Riddle said. “Had really good production from them last year and expect them to continue to grow and improve and get better.”
REMEMBER THE NAMES
One intriguing name that could be familiar with Boise State fans soon is Idaho transfer linebacker Tony Lashley, who Harsin said has the versatility to play at Vander Esch’s weakside spot or in the middle. Junior college transfer receiver John Hightower also ran track and could be a deep threat for Rypien. Hill said they expect sophomore tight end John Bates to be “an absolute dude.” Sophomore linebacker Riley Whimpey figures to be a factor at linebacker after playing as a true freshman, and redshirt freshman safety Tyreque Jones impressed over the last year.
A new NCAA rule allows teams to play true freshmen in up to four games without burning a redshirt year. That could mean every true freshman may see some time, but some that have been mentioned by players and coaches as early standouts include quarterback Riley Smith, running backs Andrew VanBuren and Danny Smith, STUD end Demitri Washington and cornerback Chris Mitchell.
RECEIVER SIGNEE THOMAS WON’T BE ON ROSTER
Harsin said freshman wide receiver Cameron Thomas, who was a late addition during December’s early signing period, will not be joining the team this season.
Thomas, a 6-foot-4 target from Austin, Texas, had been committed to Oregon State before a coaching change. Harsin said Thomas did not qualify academically and will go the junior college route. He said the Broncos plan to keep tabs on him, potentially attempting to sign him again once qualified to transfer.
FIRST COACHES’ POLL PRESEASON RANKING SINCE 2015
In the USA Today coaches’ poll, the Broncos are No. 22, tops among Group of Five schools, one spot ahead of Central Florida. At No. 25 is Oklahoma State, which Boise State faces on the road Sept. 15.
The Broncos have appeared in the preseason coaches’ poll seven of the last 10 seasons, but this is the first since 2015. They’ve made at least one appearance in the poll each of the last 17 seasons.